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Translation Devices for Travelers
The perfect travel translator if you don't speak a word of the language

Do you ever wish you had one of those little translation devices you could whip out in the middle of a supermarket in Osaka or on a street corner in Toulouse?

Maybe you need an electronic translator. You've probably seen these before - they can look like smartphones with little keyboards and be lifesavers if you don't understand what anyone is saying or need to get your own information across.

Electronic translator, online translator, translator app or phrasebook?

There are plenty of ways to communicate in other languages when you're traveling.

These translation devices or tools - each has pros and cons - won't take the place of speaking a language but they will help you connect with people you meet on the road.

It's not about learning a language fluently, but about managing enough to just be understood. A bit.

First, the electronic translator...

Electronic translators can be handy if you don't have a smartphone or laptop. They're reasonably portable, light and usually come with a lid that protects keys and screen. A big plus is that you don't need an Internet connection or phone signal - everything is on the little machine.

On the downside, they can cost quite a bit, well over $100 for the better rated Franklin translators or Ectaco or Trano brands. They need their own batteries or power source so more stuff to carry, and you have to learn how to use them - before you're standing at the ticket counter in Beijing.

Do check a few things before you buy one of these: make sure you can see the display and the keys at night; check to make sure it supports the languages you'll be needing; its size and weight and the keyboard's size (your fingers have to at least fit); and whether it 'talks'. I'm not convinced talkies are better - translation devices can be sensitive to accents.

Wouldn't a translation app be easier?

translation devicesA phone app might do the trick. No credit found.

For many people, smartphones (and now tablets) are the consummate translation devices. It's easy to download an app, and some like Google Translate are free.

There are distinct advantages to using an app for translation. If you already have a smartphone, no need for additional electronic equipment. And you already know how to use your phone so you won't need to learn a new machine, not to mention that you'll be able to use it even if the lights go out.

It's not all roses though. If you're using an app on your phone you'll need a wifi hotspot or (expensive) roaming, and you may run out of signal just when you need it the most. And consider this: you're trying to chat with a stranger on a street corner, you look up a word and hand over your brand new iPhone with the word on it. Here's hoping your helpful new friend already has the latest model iPhone and doesn't need yours... or you might never see it again.

Translation software for your laptop

Software is another alternative in your search for translation devices. It's not really a device because it works off your computer but at least you won't have to carry a new piece of equipment and batteries and chargers. Once software is loaded, it's there so you won't have to search for wifi or a mobile network.

Problem is, most softwares are expensive. One of the more popular, Babylon 9 (for PCs) is over $100. Not all softwares are created equal so make sure you check the reviews out thoroughly, ensure that it works for your operating system, and that it has the languages you need for your own travel itinerary.

If you have easy access to good and free internet or are prepared to pay for a mobile connection, then forget about software and just use a free online translator like Google or the Babelfish translator.

Other translation devices

Small pen-like mini-scanners are popular and are often sold in flight but they're more show than substance for women on the road. If all you have to translate is regular text on a written page, one of these might bail you out in a pinch. But much of what you need to understand doesn't lie flat on a sheet of paper - it might be written on top of a building or on a poster or in huge letters you won't be able to scan. Not ideal.

Love it or hate it, there's the old standby: the foreign language phrasebook. It's cheap, doesn't require batteries, and having looked it up you might actually remember the word. And unlike an expensive smartphone there's no risk: you WILL get your Serbo-Croat phrasebook back if you hand it over to someone. The disadvantage? It's slow, and you can only look up one word at a time... Still, this is probably my favorite, along with the pocket language dictionary in whatever language (I have an oversized collection of these).

However you choose to deal with language, whether with translation devices or by waving your arms wildly or speaking at the top of your voice (I don't recommend this), don't worry about making mistakes. Trying to communicate is all part of the travel adventure and you'll undoubtedly have stories to tell about your linguistic faux-pas when you return home.

You may also find some of the information on the following pages useful:

How to study language abroad
How to learn a language